Before the pandemic, indigenous tourism in North America was an economic engine that helped tribes share and preserve cultures. Stakeholders say it’s more important than ever that tourism picks up where it left off.
Fajada Butte in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Trafalgar)
Fajada Butte in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Trafalgar)
2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for Indian Country tourism.
Years of dedicated efforts by governments, tribal leaders and travel companies to tap into demand for and grow new businesses and experiences dedicated to the authentic and unique were showing huge dividends.
Visits to native lands were hitting records. Tribes with focused efforts to develop and promote travel-related business offered everything from native arts and historical tours to bed and breakfasts, outdoor activities, cultural centers, restaurants and even brew pubs, contributing to solid economic gains and lower unemployment.
And Washington-based George Washington University (GWU) had plans in mid-March to hold its first international indigenous tourism forum in New Mexico, home to 19 native pueblos and three reservations. The forum was to highlight native destinations and products and to bring together industry experts and travel sellers to network and discuss the successes and challenges of building indigenous travel businesses.
Instead, like the rest of the world, that all came to a screeching halt with the Covid-19 pandemic, threatening the future not only of a highly fragile ecosystem of mostly mom-and-pop businesses but of the very tribes themselves.
Across North America, many tribes have shuttered access to their lands to protect their rural, often impoverished and vulnerable populations, which have been hit hard by the virus.
The Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the U.S., has more coronavirus cases per capita than any state in the country, surpassing even New York. Exacerbating the problem, experts say, is the fact that multiple generations often live together in houses that lack running water, making basic hygiene difficult.
“We just had a record-breaking year [for tourism] in 2019,” said Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). “The impacts of Covid-19 couldn’t be worse.”
Challenges and optimism
While Native American communities across the U.S. and Canada have been disproportionately hard hit by the pandemic, there are nonetheless reasons for optimism.
For starters, Seleni Matus, executive director of GWU’s International Institute of Tourism, said, “There is always innovation and creativity that comes out of these really tough moments.”
And for indigenous people, she said, “resilience has been such a key part of everything.”
In North America, native communities also have solid support groups like ITAC and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (Aianta), which for years have been supporting programs and plans to help tribes across the continent develop, grow and market their businesses.
In the U.S., tribes have also had more federal help since the 2016 passage of the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (Native) Act.
The Canadian government was a few years ahead of the U.S. in supporting such efforts. From 2014 to 2019, Canadian indigenous tourism has outpaced the tourism sector overall, growing an estimated 20% per year over that period, compared with 14.5% growth in tourism in general from 2014 to 2017, according to the ITAC.
In the U.S., Aianta CEO Sherry Rupert said native tourism has grown 187% since 2007, with a record 1.96 million visits recorded in 2018. That marked an increase of 9% from 2017.
With the Covid-19 outbreak, those key national support groups quickly shifted gears to focus on helping native communities tap into government stimulus programs. They’ve also been actively developing webinars and other programs to help indigenous travel businesses survive the shutdown and plan for recovery.
Still, Henry fears hard-earned progress will be lost. Over the past five years, he said, Canada has seen the number of indigenous-owned businesses grow from 1,400 to 1,900.
“For all the growth and positives, the reality is we think we are going to lose 600 to 900 businesses, maybe permanently,” due to Covid-19, he said.
Rupert also said she is concerned about the impact on tourism enterprises across the 574 tribes in the U.S. In 2012, U.S. Census figures showed there were more than 67,000 native-owned hospitality-related businesses, a 59% increase from 2007.
“I think that they are especially vulnerable,” she said. “We are in uncharted territory right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But what we do know is that there still is a lot of interest in coming to Indian Country.”
Prior to Covid-19, Rupert said, Indian Country tourism was ripe for growth.
“I think the industry felt that, as well,” she said. “We did a survey in spring of 2019 of tribal tourism enterprises, and they were generally upbeat about their tourism prospects, with 75% indicating they believed tourism would increase greatly or somewhat.”
To tap that interest, Rupert said, Aianta has focused on targeting local travelers when pandemic restrictions ease. Native communities are generally rural and are often near national parks and other outdoor-focused destinations, the very places that travelers leery of airplanes are first expected to flock to in their cars as the pandemic eases, she said.
“Indian Country is everywhere,” she added. “There are opportunities to visit Indian Country where you can be close to home, not be surrounded by huge crowds and have these unique experiences that are holistic and spiritual.”
Indeed, several tour operators were including new native-focused itineraries this year, including Trafalgar, which was set to launch a Southwest Native Trails trip this spring, offering a deep dive into the culture and history of native communities in New Mexico and Arizona.
Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman said that trip and a new indigenous-focused tour in Colombia were a natural outgrowth of the company’s movement over the past decade to ensure their trips “bring forward the very essence of these places we visit, to truly make a connection to them.”
“So much of their culture, so much of their heritage lives only with them and is not really seen or understood anymore,” he said.
Intrepid Travel was also expanding its portfolio of indigenous experiences in North America, according to Megan Bailey, the company’s North American sales director.
“We were seeing increased interest and demand for more … First Nation experiences on our North American tours before the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “Although we already had a number of tours that included these, we were consistently working to create new experiences.” The company has several itineraries that include visits to the Navajo Nation, including stays in traditional hogan huts. And this year it was introducing an expedition to the Haida Gwaii islands in British Columbia, with a focus on the Haida First Nation culture.
Destination America, a sister company to Trafalgar that helped develop its Southwest Native Trails itinerary, offers some 40 to 50 experiences engaging with indigenous communities in North America, said president and CEO Richard Launder.
Engaging with the native people, Launder said, has a powerful effect.
“If you go out to Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde or Acoma Pueblo, you come away in absolute awe of the history, the sophistication of the architecture and agricultural calendars,” he said. “You develop an immediate appreciation for all of these communities.”
This year, Destination America is developing for another TTC brand, Insight Vacations, the first guided vacation to the Abegweit First Nation on Prince Edward Island, he said.
“We will be able to participate in a kind of open Q&A with Chief [Junior] Gould, and he’ll talk about the good, the bad and the challenges of the nation.
“In a sense it’s not a tourist attraction in that it’s something much deeper. … I think our guests will really be impacted by that experience.”
Despite the current travel shutdown, Matus said she believes indigenous travel will remain a viable tool to help native communities develop their economies while preserving their cultures.
“Many indigenous communities rely heavily on tourism,” she said. “It is our responsibility to ensure that we continue to help indigenous communities be able to shift gears to ensure that the communities continue to have revenue while tourism has come to a stop.”
New tours deliver authentic Native American experiences
Here’s a sampling of some of the newest Native American tours highlighted by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. More information about these and other tribal tours can be found at www.nativeamerica.travel.
- Explore California’s tribal culture in a redwood canoe (www.visityurokcountry.com): Learn about the Yurok Tribe, whose ancestral home sits along the Klamath River and California’s redwood forests, while paddling down the river in a traditional, hand-carved redwood canoe. According to the tribe, this is the only location in the world offering redwood canoe tours.
- Watch the buffalo roam in Wyoming (www.eastern shoshone.org): Last year, the Wind River Reservation welcomed five new male bison, offspring of Yellowstone bison given to the tribe as part of the first government-to-tribe bison transfer, coordinated in partnership with the National Wildlife Foundation. With advance reservations, guests can tour the Wind River Reservation to learn more about the program and experience the culture and history of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
- Four-nation commemoration of the Mayflower landing at Plymouth (www.plymouth400inc.org): This fall, celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing and learn about how the Wampanoag people helped the Puritans survive. Organizations from the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and the Wampanoag Nation will share stories of America’s founding from their own perspectives.
- Reflect on the legacy of Native American boarding schools (www.stewartindianschool.com): The Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nev., was one of 60 Indian Boarding Schools set up during the late 1800s. Students were prohibited from speaking their languages or practicing their traditions and had no contact with their families. The Stewart Indian School reopened last year as the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum.